Course: Rising, Passing and Classing: The Literature of Upward Mobility

HC 222H

Professor: Casey Shoop

“You are part of my existence, part of myself. You have been in every line I have ever read, since I first came here, the rough common boy whose poor heart you wounded even then.”

So says Pip in Great Expectations, looking back over a life that bears the scars of how he has made his way upward in the world toward the idealized life that he desires. This course explores the literature of upward mobility, the great narratives of individual striving and struggling. Where are all of these characters trying to go anyway? What are the forces that compel them? What kinds of cultural work do such stories do? We will be particularly interested in how the ethos of individualism that shapes this literary tradition comes into conflict with racial, class and gender lines that delimit, shape and even crush its expression.

At the same time, the upward mobility genre has an abiding fascination for those who transgress the policed boundaries of class, race and gender; these narratives also expose the malleability of such categories and the promissory glimpse of worlds in which identities are not so wounded in the process of their formation. What do such narratives tell us about the social worlds that both constrain and enable the movement of these characters? With due attention to the historical contexts that both inhibit and enable upward mobility, we will consider whether identity is always caught between freedom and necessity, alienation and autonomy.

Possible texts include Balzac’s Lost Illusions, Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Dickens’s Great Expectations, Twain’s Pudd’head Wilson, Johnson’s Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,  Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Nella Larsen’s Passing, Malcolm X and Alex Haley’s The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Hanif Kureishi’s The Black Album, Carmen Boullosa’s Antes, Danzy Senna’s Caucasia,  Sirk’s Imitation of Life, among many, many others.